Art Nouveau style cabinet – part 4

22 Apr

This is Part 4 of my restoration of an Art Nouveau cabinet which I had bought and whose base was riddled with woodworm.

As you will see from Part 3, I ditched the idea of using 18mm MDF and reverted to the original construction of a sandwich of plywood and mitred softwood.

Caution: This is a pretty long post with lots of pictures!

I carefully measured the size of the original base, and took those measurements with me to B&Q, where I bought some 3.6mm exterior plywood which I had cut to size with B&Q’s free cutting service. I also bought several lengths of 18mm x 32mm planed softwood.

My first attempt, which was my first ever attempt at a mitre cut, turned out very well but was too thick due to a miscalculation on my part. Also, when I offered it up to the cabinet, it appeared to not fit so in frustration I tore it apart. Ironically, it turns out that it would probably have sufficed (albeit with an unsightly lip) but never mind.

My next attempt was to use 12mm x 32mm planed softwood, and to use the original base as a template for the plywood rather than perfectly rectangular panels. I then cut it with a jigsaw, following the pencil marks I had made. This proved a bit of a disaster as my cutting was all over the place and very wobbly and it looked awful. I then found that the remaining rectangular plywood panel (the other having been destroyed when I ripped apart the first attempt) was the right size after all, and the base had been square after all, and that the cabinet sides are indeed parallel. Rather than return to B&Q to get my remaining plywood cut (which I’m not sure they even do – I think you have to get it cut at the time of purchase), I experimented with different types of cutting. A hand saw was not much more straight than the jigsaw, and my circular saw just ripped it up. I considered getting a finer blade for the circular saw, but then hit on the idea of using an old piece of metal as a cutting guide for the jigsaw and this resulted in a nice straight edge.

Once again I mitre-cut the softwood and laid it out on the plywood sheet that had been cut at B&Q, with the 18mm MDF panel underneath to ensure that the plywood laid flat, and then glued it, clamping it until it set using a variety of clamps including a corner clamp set I bought.

Once dried, I laid the other ply on top and offered it up to the cabinet, and verified that it would fit. I also offered up the front bar and legs, and the height of the bar appeared to exactly match the height of my new base, which was a big relief.

Because I was using a sandwich construction now, I was able to glue & screw the bar to the new base.

I then glued the second plywood panel on to complete the sandwich.

I used the aborted 18mm MDF panel as a press to ensure that it dried flat.

Once it was mostly dry, I then hammered panel pins into the front and back edges, leaving the sides as the cabinet sides would be attaching there and I didn’t want to hit a nail when doing so.

With hindsight, before I glued the top plywood layer, I should have temporarily removed the screws down into the front legs, and then replaced them after, so that there were not hidden screws under the top layer of ply. This would come back to bite me later.

After that was dry, I offered it up to the cabinet and discovered that the base wasn’t thick enough and would cause the front bar to foul the doors. I’m not sure why I didn’t pick up on this sooner. Perhaps with the gluing, clamping, and nailing, the sandwich had compressed a little. Or perhaps I simply miscalculated.

However, I had some 3mm hardboard, so realised I could make some shim strips from it which would rectify that. More on that later.

I applied two coats of Rosewood wood stain to the underside of the new base. This ended up being quite an acceptable colour match to the cabinet, and the grain of the plywood actually ended up looking quite ok once stained – I had wondered if I would need to buy some wood veneer.

The next job was to attach the rear legs. Unlike the front legs, these would only be attached to the base, so I used three screws per leg – a large screw for strength then two satellite screws to prevent rotation. I also re-attached a broken corner of one of the rear legs, which involved nailing through the base to secure it.

This is where I compounded my earlier mistake of allowing screws to become hidden by the next layer, because I then added the shim strips, glueing & pinning them in place. This was a really big mistake as I will come to shortly.

As you can imagine, it was getting a little crowded along that edge, what with all the layers of nails and screws.

Once the legs were all on, I could see that there was only a narrow gap between them in which I could screw into the cabinet, and that I was going to have to use dowels. And this is where it all went a bit wrong and my chickens came home to roost.

I did a lot of practise with dowels on a test sandwich first, and I got pretty confident with it.

But first I stained the top of the base.

I made cardboard templates that marked out what parts of the cabinet sides were solid wood, which parts were the glazed area, also marking where the sawn off captive screws were so I could avoid them, and therefore where the optimum places for the dowel holes would be.

I remember thinking at the time “I hope I don’t hit any of the corner screws when drilling the dowel holes”. Even then it didn’t occur to me to remove the shim strips again, remove the screws, drill the dowel holes, and then replace the screws. It seems so obvious now, and I am kicking myself for it.

I drilled the dowel holes, and three of them were ok but, sure enough, I hit a screw on the 4th. So I filled the hole with wood filler, waited for it to dry, and tried again in a slightly different place. Even as I’m writing this I’m shaking my head at the stupidity of that.

On re-drilling, the hardboard shim disintegrated as hardboard is so soft (ironically), the drill slipped, and took out the edge of the plywood. So I mixed up some epoxy wood filler to build it back up again. This was so stupid. What I should have done was chisel off the shim strip, remove the screws, replace the hardboard shim with a plywood or hardwood one, re-drill the original dowel hole, and then reassemble. But I didn’t. Instead I used the epoxy filler. *sighs*

I built a little mould for it out of scrap wood and masking tape, then when it was dry sanded back.

Fortunately this was just about strong enough and I managed to drill the dowel hole.

I then put dowel centre pins in the holes, and offered up the base to the cabinet so that I could gently tap the base and cause the centre pins to mark where I should drill the corresponding dowel holes in the cabinet sides.

I wasn’t happy with one of the holes, as it was too close to the edge of the cabinet wood, so I had to fill it with filler and re-drill. Luckily I got away with that one and didn’t hit a screw.

This was now the most stressful and dangerous part of the restoration – drilling the dowel holes in the cabinet sides. Everything up to now could have been started over again afresh, and in fact maybe should have been, but this was the biggie. I actually put this off for several days, finding ever more trivial things that “had” to be done first, like a bit more wood stain or a bit more filler, waiting several hours for each to dry. In the end I realised I was delaying the inevitable and bit the bullet.

Ironically, the drilling went without a hitch. Due to my prior planning on the optimum place to drill the holes, I had good solid deep wood as I was drilling into the wood either side of the glass pane. And since it was a hardwood, there was no drill slippage. However, the dowels were a very tight fit, and also didn’t line up exactly, despite having used a centre pin, and using a jig for the drilling. After a lot of faffing, hole enlarging, and also sanding the ribs of the dowels to make them a little slimmer, I finally got everything to line up.

Due to the way the silk lining of the cabinet was still attached, I needed to bond that before fitting the base, so I used carpet spray contact adhesive on it, then quickly before it dried, I applied wood glue to the base and dowels, and bonded the base to the cabinet. I then drilled a single screw hole either side to clamp them tight together, being very careful not to drill too deep and hit the glass, and also carefully choosing a wood screw of just the right length.

It was now time to stand the cabinet on its legs, and press the silk lining to the base before the glue went off. Unfortunately, the glue had soaked through the silk and stained it. I hoped it would dry clear but sadly it did not.

You can see from the photo how bad it is, but you can also see that the silk lining is not in great condition anyway from the staining up the sides.

Finally, I needed to fit the decorative edging strips. But before I did that, they needed to be treated with woodworm killer as they were riddled with woodworm holes.

Once they were treated and dry, I applied a thin layer of wood glue, pressed them into place, and then used veneer pins to secure them, using a pin punch to hide the heads. I used existing woodworm holes rather than creating new holes. Although frankly I don’t think it would have made a lot of difference.

I decided to leave the chewed-up end of the strip “as is” for now, as it is not that obvious when the cabinet is against the wall.

Finally, I carried the cabinet into my lounge, set it against the wall, and put the glass shelves in.

Is that the end of the project? No, I don’t think it is. But it is certainly a milestone and a time to pause.

What still needs to be done is to try to address the top of the cabinet, which is quite scratched and stained. I have bought some special polish for this but not used it yet.

I also need to thoroughly polish all the wood, and clean the glass.

Another job is to replace the lock, as the key is missing. This isn’t a top priority though as the tops of the doors rub against the underside of the cabinet top, which means that the doors don’t swing open on their own.

The biggest remaining job, though, is that I think I need to replace the back panel with new plywood as it isn’t in great condition, smells musty, and has a nasty sawed off edge at the bottom (if you recall from Part 2). And that will also mean replacing the silk interior. I had hoped to avoid this, but the silk interior was in a pretty questionable state anyway and the staining from the carpet glue has really tipped it over the edge beyond what is acceptable. A good quality wallpaper could be a viable alternative to silk and gives me a lot of scope to make something unique.

That’s a job for another day, and another blog post, though.

Also, I had another project I wanted to get started on. But more on that another time.



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